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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Ghosts for the Beginning Skeptic

Ok folks, as promised, here is the next installment of the "Things for the Beginning Skeptic" series. I am going to try and stick to more researched topics for a while, so the lag between posts might be even longer than it has been. This is a topic that has interested me for years, mostly because I grew up listening to ghost stories that supposedly involved various family members.I'm not going to get into the various ghost hunting groups or the equipment that they claim to use. I'm just going to talk about the supposed types of ghosts.I don't mean Slimer, Casper, or Christmas Past. I mean poltergeists, haints, spooks, spirits, and hauntings. I guess that as usual we should start with a ....

Definition: According to Mirriam-Webster, a ghost is: a disembodied soul; especially :  the soul of a dead person believed to be an inhabitant of the unseen world or to appear to the living in bodily likeness. A ghost could be most easily defined as the energy left behind by a person or event that has an effect on the visible world. I personally would define them as an illusion or a hallucination. Often, they are reported as a feeling of being watched, a shape seen from the corner of the eye, a shadowy figure, or any of a number of other vague descriptions. Ghosts, in their various forms, are often blamed for odd occurrences, such as a chair rocking when no one is in it, a door opening or closing on it's own, or a sudden chill. Like so many other things in the world of pseudoscience, instead of looking for natural explanations first, believers in ghosts jump straight to the end of the line and yell GHOST! 

TYPES:
Let's take a look at the various types of ghosts out there. Like a lot of my previous Beginning Skeptic posts, I'm going to attempt to put them into classifications, though it's going to be a bit tricky with something as ephemeral as ghosts. (See what I did there?) One of the problems with this approach is that every region, and even every group, has their own way of defining what type of supernatural presence they believe they are dealing with. So I'm just going to wing it and try and group them by either what they do, or the claimed effect that they have. I know I'm not going to get to everyone's favorites, but consider this a rough list.

Visual: These would include things such as orbs, rods, shadow men, movement from the edge of vision, the stereotypical hazy humanoid, or in some cases creature, someone that suddenly disappears, someone out of place like a confederate soldier at a Starbucks, unless you live in Georgia, and so on. You get the idea. These are the ones that people either see directly, or indirectly through pictures, movies and reflections. The have a variety of names, such as ghost (which applies to nearly everything in these classifications), spook, specter, haint, phantom, and apparition. Some famous ones are The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, Resurrection Mary (though she might actually qualify as a poltergeist), and Anne Boylen and several other in the Tower of London. I found a list of "!0 Famous Ghosts" on Listverse.com. The main trait of these types are that they are strictly visual. People claim that they see them pass through walls or other people, and there is no physical substance to them, and little to no interaction with the physical world. With the orbs and rods, these are normally only seen when someone is reviewing pictures. To be honest, I really didn't want to include them because they have been so thoroughly debunked for so long. In case you don't know, orbs are normally either dust or water droplets that are illuminated by the camera flash. The rods are most likely flying insects that are caught up in the flash and the light is reflected off of their bodies. You can read more about orbs and rods at the Skeptics Dictionary.

Physical: In this group, I'm going to include anything that folks claim can actually interact with the physical world. This would include poltergeists and spirits. These are the supposed sources of odd events happening, such as something falling off of a shelf, objects moving around seemingly on their own, people getting mysterious scratches or bruises or even cold chills. There are also reports of dishes being flung across a room, people being levitated or thrown, furniture being moved about or placed oddly. People have also claimed to have symbols or words appear on the walls, normally in a blood like substance. This is what the movie "Poltergeist" is based on. I believe that possessions would also fall into this category, and I'm not going to make separate categories for angels and demons. Sometimes, these are normally the result of someone seeking attention. Other times, they are normal events, such as a door that's not quite level shutting, that take on a creepy nature due to the mindset of the witness. There are some fairly well known events, such as the Coventry Poltergeist, the Bell Witch, and of course the Amityville House. Wikipedia has a decent article on poltergeists.

Auditory: I'm just putting this one in because I grew up hearing stories about banshees. Really quickly, if you hear the cry of a banshee, either you or someone close to you is going to die or have great misfortune, or someone has just died. A lot of the older clans seem to have a specific banshee tied to them, so if a family member hears their families banshee, they supposedly know that something has happened. Most likely, owls or some other night bird are the primary source for this story. The Best representation of a banshee can be seen in the movie "Darby O'Gill and the Little People". If you haven't seen it, watch it. If you have, watch it again. There are also reports of mysterious whispers, footsteps, laughing, and animal noises that "can't be explained" They can be explained. Someone in another room or even house talking, kids laughing, animals make noise, and feet make sounds. What most people aren't considering is that sounds can be transmitted through solid objects, and when they are, they get distorted. Also, many people don't seem to realize that sounds can carry for quite a ways, especially at night. I could crowbar EVPs into this, but they are going to be part of the Ghost Hunting post I'm currently working on.

Hauntings: These are interesting because instead of an individual person being affected, it's a general area, location or even an item. Often people report seeing events from the past being replayed (also referred to as time slips) or seeing people from a different era walking about. Hauntings can actually fall under every category of ghost because there can be claims of visual happenings, like people suddenly appearing or disappearing, physical events, such as furniture moving or unexplained injuries, and auditory, like voices coming from the walls. These are normally older structures which are going to have a lot of creaks, drafts, rattling pipes, ans squeaky boards. You'll often see the hunter groups go into these places, get the shit scared out of them, and then, in a very professional manner, say it was because of ghosts. Now then, haunted items are an interesting beast in and of themselves. These are objects that are believed to have some sort of a supernatural force attached to them. There are dolls, knives, cabinets, blankets, and tons of other things that some people feel are possessed by some type of spirit. A common report you'll often hear is "When we brought X into the house, suddenly Y started happening." This is normally a case of association. They notice something, say a pipe rattling in the wall, after bringing a supposedly haunted object in. Just because they never noticed it before doesn't mean that it wasn't happening and they ignored it. It could also be a coincidence that whatever the problem is started at the same time as the object coming into the house. Another factor that a lot of these haunted houses, and even the objects, have in common are young children and teenagers. Now, I will admit that trying to explain a haunted battlefield is quite a bit harder, at least for me, as I have never been to one. The odds are more likely to be in the favor of a delusion or hallucination combined with the areas history as well as folk tales that have probably been told since right after the battle ended.

Demons and Angels: There are folks that believe demons and angels can directly interact with the physical world. Of course the best known examples of each are possession with demons and guardian angels, though there are small groups that seem to believe angels can possess people too. Once again, this is a squishy area, as demons get blamed for many other types of spirit events. Of course, these also have a religious undertone, and this is where exorcisms some in, which would be a whole other topic. Many reports of demons and angels often involve either children and teens, or people who are suffering from some serious mental issues.

Conclusion:
While I can't say definitively that ghosts don't exist, I can say that the odds of there being some form of extinct person walking around scaring the hell out of tourists is highly unlikely. All the gadgets and tools used by, and I do laugh a bit at the term, professional ghost hunters simply show that they have no idea what they are doing. There has never been any actual proof of ghosts. There have been pictures, yes. People have had odd experiences too. Weird thing have happened in spooky locations with a history. However, most of the time, these can be explained with more mundane theories. Once again, pareidolia, and a lack of critical thinking rear their ugly heads. An interesting thing to note is that while reports of ghosts have been steadily decreasing in the modern world, they are rapidly being replaced by reports of aliens. The stories are almost identical, but the perpetrator has changed. As always, if someone can produce actual, testable evidence, I'll change my mind on the matter. Until then the closest you'll probably get to see a ghost is...
Thanks to the guys at Blurry Photos podcast and C-Webb's Paranormal Skeptic Academy for giving me the idea of how to approach this. 

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